HANOVER, N.H. -- Federal education and Justice Department officials speaking at a Dartmouth College summit on sexual assault said Monday they’re open to the idea of new legislation to address the issue but already have effective tools at their disposal.
Representatives from more than 60 colleges and universities are attending this week’s conference at Dartmouth, one of 55 colleges and universities being investigated by the federal Education Department for how it handles sexual harassment and assault complaints. Participants on Monday heard from Catherine Lhamon, the Education Department’s assistant secretary for civil rights, and Anurima Bhargava from the Justice Department’s division of civil rights.
The Education Department and a White House task force on campus sexual assault have taken a series of steps to draw attention to the treatment of sexual assault victims and force campuses to address the problem. Meanwhile, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and other senators are exploring legislative ways to empower victims, simplify laws and rules colleges and universities follow and find ways that campuses and local authorities can better coordinate.
"I’m open and enthusiastic about what may be forthcoming, but where I sit today, I think we have a set of very, very effective tools," Lhamon said, denying an audience member’s suggestion that current laws lack teeth.
Those tools include the threat of litigation and the potential loss of federal funding for not complying with Title IX, which prohibits gender discrimination, and Lhamon said four schools have come close to the latter sanction in the last 10 months.
"I don’t think it is an empty threat," she said. "If a school is told that it is not compliant with Title IX in any respect and refuses to come into compliance, I will go to enforcement and I am prepared to withhold federal funds."
Both officials were asked to respond to recent comments from McCaskill and Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council on Education, which represents college presidents.
Releasing a national survey her office conducted on campus sexual assault, McCaskill said institutions must "recognize sexual violence for what it is -- a crime -- and work to prevent it and effectively address it when it does occur." In a letter to a Senate committee last month, Broad noted that campus disciplinary procedures were designed to resolve issues of student conduct with respect to academic matters, not felonies, and should not be proxies for the criminal justice system.
Bhargava said her office is not asking educational institutions to engage in criminal investigations, but the law requires colleges and universities to ensure students have a safe learning environment. Lhamon agreed.
"While I agree colleges and universities shouldn’t be criminal justice systems, it is necessarily part of their role to make sure their students are safe," she said. "I resist pretty hard the notion that schools don’t have a role in this. They absolutely do."
Dartmouth, which reported 24 sexual assaults in 2012, compared with 15 in 2011, 22 in 2010 and 10 in 2009, has been working on multiple fronts to prevent sexual assault, encourage reporting and hold perpetrators accountable.
In April, Dartmouth president Philip Hanlon called sexual assault one of three critical issues -- along with high-risk drinking and lack of inclusion -- that are compromising the school’s core mission. Two months later, the college implemented a new system for handling sexual assaults that includes harsher sanctions and having a trained external expert investigate allegations and determine responsibility for sexual assault.